New e-reader interface improves quality of life

UW Hospitals’ Dr. Luzzio aids the community in accessibility one device at a time

By Margarita Labik Photos by Dr. Luzzio Print Design by Annie Shutt
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Close up of the mechanical spring arms with tiny rollers that "touch" the screen.

In today’s day and age, with many touchscreen devices, activities like the browsing the internet and completing work projects come to mind. Many users are fully reliant on tablets and mobile devices, faithfully placing their entire lives in hands of this amazing technology. What many do not think about is the limitations of such devices in terms of accessibility to users with different types of disabilities. Most mobile devices are not accessible to about 200,000 people in the United States who have a form of debilitating spinal injury. Thanks to a UW-Madison program, the trend of limited accessibly is now becoming less prominent in our community.

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Dr. Luzzio in his shop next to milling machine.

A woman was referred to Dr. Christopher Luzzio, an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at UW-Madison who is also a mechanical engineer and machinist, in hopes of gaining assistance in making her first steps towards independence. The problem was that the woman in need liked to read, but being quadriplegic due to multiple sclerosis has made it impossible to perform simple tasks, such as turning a page of the book without assistance. Dr. Luzzio decided that the easiest way to allow the client to read on her own was to create a user interface for an e-reader. He decided to take on the challenge of creating such a device.

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Detail of back of machine. Dials adjust the sensors sensitivity. The box contains and Arduino micro-controller board.

Due to the client only being able to move only one finger, Dr. Luzzio created a device that turns the pages of an e-reader using a slight movement of one’s finger. In order to prepare the customer for the use of the device, an assistant places the client’s finger in a plastic loop. That loop, in turn, attaches to a pendulum with a sensor at the top. When the sensor detects any subtle movement to either the right or left, a microcontroller activates two small arms that touch e-reader’s screen in order to flip the pages. Dr. Luzzio had to hand-make as well as recycle some old parts to make this device.

The most difficult part of this project was to insure the screen would be responsive to the stimulation generated by the device’s arms. To overcome this obstacle, Dr. Luzzio created spring-loaded arms with aluminum rollers at the ends. Since an e-reader’s screen is sensitive to touch, it is necessary to apply conduction gel to the rollers. This use of gel may be avoided today with the use of newer e-readers that have advancing wireless capability, however the existing machine was not equipped for that technology according to Dr. Luzzio. Additionally, he postulated, the movement of the mechanical arms serves as a visual extension of the clients finger, possibly facilitating its continued movement.

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Close-up of finger sensor.

Creation of the user interface for an e-reader did not stop once the desired functionality was achieved. Dr. Luzzio went beyond the design to make sure the device was user-friendly, as well as aesthetically pleasing. After its completion, Dr. Luzzio often visited the client to make small adjustments to the device, mostly fine-tuning software and adding dials that allowed the patient’s husband to control the speed and sensitivity of the device. The finished product is a device that has allowed the client to read without the help of her husband. “Now she can read independently; she was never able to do that before,” Dr. Luzzio says. Dr. Luzzio talks about his work as, “I see myself as doing a service to the public.”

This project was created as a part of the UW-Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology (UW-CREATe). UW-CREATe is a great opportunity for many UW-Madison interdepartments to collaborate in order to give back to the local community. Furthermore, Dr. Luzzio working alongside Professor Heidi Ploeg (and for many years previously with his mentor Professor Frank Fronczak), is also helping with a UW-Madison mechanical engineering senior design class that is creating a solution to assist disabled members of the community. It is the students’ task as a part of their class to design, build and give the machine to the client.

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Completed machine attached to salvaged IV pole.

UW-CREATe projects are a great opportunity for the College of Engineering’s graduate and undergraduate students to give back to the public, as the project for improving the e-reader’s user interface was of no cost to the client. It has given her the freedom she had not been able to feel for years. Dr. Luzzio hopes that “the program as a whole will grow beyond UW-Madison’s campus.” This project taken on by UW-CREATe, as well as many others such as wheelchairs and orthotic devices, are the connection of the College of Engineering to the community.

More about UW-CREATe:

UW-CREATe was founded by retired UW-Madison professors in hopes of improving the quality of life and meeting the needs of individuals in the community. That goal is accomplished through education, design and mentoring of students. Some of the projects taken on by UW-CREATe are accomplished without student involvement. Currently UW-CREATe receives no outside funding for its projects and staff. UW-CREATe is constantly evolving in order to expand the program to the community. As a part of this effort, the design center is hoping to integrate a public web interface in the near future.

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View of Christopher Luzzio testing machine.